Excessive regulation of boat docks

by Alli Swenning
(Milford Iowa USA)

Visitor Question: Our dock (considered as one) has two hoists on it. We have been using it this way since we've lived here (20 plus years). Now, our City Council is enacting an ordinance that states it is allowing only one hoist per dock. We have an additional issue that makes this situation unique.

Our dock and hoists are on a public access area. Paragraph two of said ordinance states, "No person shall be permitted more than (1) hoist space used for either (1) boat or (2) personal watercraft on city access areas. If found to have more than (1) hoist space for any (1) qualifying property, they will be required to correct the issue immediately or give up their city issued dock space.

Are we grandfathered in? This will be coming to a vote soon. Any assistance would be appreciated!

Editors Reply: First let us explain why we changed the title you gave your piece, which was "zoning bullying." The four of us who write for this website feel strongly that you will be more successful if you adopt a problem-solving approach with your city, rather than an adversarial approach. If you think and speak in terms of bullying, you are less likely to reach a satisfactory conclusion. Or to phrase it differently, since you are from the U.S. Midwest, you might understand the expression, "You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar."

Now let's look at the next part of the title you wrote, which is "zoning." You should probably determine whether this proposed change is an actual amendment to the zoning ordinance, or whether it is a free-standing ordinance. The differences will be the amount of public scrutiny the proposed change will receive, whether or not you may apply for a zoning variance if enacted, and how the change will be enforced. Zoning ordinance amendments almost always go through a public hearing before a planning and zoning commission (which might be called something else), which then has an advisory role to the City Council. But from some of the things you wrote, it seems like this might be a free-standing ordinance that the City Council itself has originated. Knowing the difference will affect your strategy.

If indeed this could be characterized as a definitional change in the zoning ordinance, you might want to refer to our page about opposing a rezoning. Although that is written from the perspective of helping people organize to oppose a zoning map change instead of zoning text change, the process explanations there may help.

Regardless of the different processes that may apply, try to find out what has caused the City Council to consider this change. Was there a problem or abuse that they are trying to correct? Did some expert come along to tell them this is the way their zoning (or other) ordinance should read? Was one person complaining about your hoists, or else's hoists or boat lift? Is there some sort of practical problem or inconvenience on the lake that is causing them to consider such a measure?

Especially in a small city, there is often an over-reaction to a specific problem. If you can find out how this issue arose, you may be able to think of alternative solutions to the problem at hand that wouldn't involve your losing what you have enjoyed for 20 years. Your understanding of local conditions and boating culture would be helpful in creating a better way to address any real or imagined issue.

Now let's talk about your question about grandfathering. For other readers who may be following along, "grandfathering" in zoning and other types of community development regulation refers to allowing something to continue to exist even after after a law is passed that prohibits that condition.

From the second paragraph of the ordinance, which you quoted, it certainly seems as if they do not plan to grandfather your existing hoist on a public access area. The outrageous part to us is that they don't even intend to allow you a phase-out time, and that you will have to comply "immediately."

Not only that, but at least in the part that you quoted, there is no hint of monetary compensation there for the fact that they are requiring removal of something of monetary value. If we could compare this to something else that happens in some cities under the zoning ordinance, sometimes signs that are nonconforming to the zoning ordinance are required to be removed--but even then, there is usually a period of years that those signs are allowed to remain.

So your city is being pretty strict. Find out why before you decide exactly what you want to do about it, and maybe you can turn yourself into a problem-solver rather than someone that the City Council regards as a self-interested pest.

If the "reasons" they present seem like some City Councilperson is being self-serving, trying to use influence to help a friend or relative, or just silly, you certainly have the option for a civil suit. This might especially be true if an elected official has a personal vendetta against you or your family. Local governments are likely to escape big financial judgments in civil suits, but are somewhat vulnerable to injunctions and even criticisms from judges.

Lastly, as we often do, we urge you not to try to fight this by yourself. Encourage other boat owners to go with you physically to the meeting, to sign letters or petitions, to take to social media, or to contact lawmakers personally. Cities are usually more responsive when groups of citizens oppose something than when one person objects.

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